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Facebook Chitchat Is Unforgettable

18 January 2013 1:55 pm
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Sean Treacy

Remember me? Status updates like this one are more memorable than lines from books.

One day in 2011, a Facebook user professed a love for clean sheets, ending the humble status update with a smiley face. Little did this person realize, the post would inform our understanding of memory. Scientists have found that, when it comes to mental recall, people are far more likely to remember the text of idle chitchat on social media platforms like Facebook than the carefully crafted sentences of books.

The researchers happened upon the findings by accident. Cognitive psychologist Laura Mickes of the University of California, San Diego, and her colleagues were originally looking into the effects of emotions on memory, and happened to be using Facebook posts to invoke various feelings. But they found that the status updates seemed memorable all on their own. "It was a bit of a surprise for us," Mickes says. "It wasn't our original question."

So the researchers kept their social media windows open. They gathered 200 Facebook posts from the accounts of undergraduate research assistants, such as "Bc sometimes it makes me wonder," "The library is a place to study, not to talk on your phone," and the comment about clean bed linen. They also randomly selected 200 sentences from recently published books, gathered from free text on Amazon.com. Sentences included, "Underneath the mass of facial hair beamed a large smile," and "Even honor had its limits." The scientists stripped the posts and book excerpts of their context, selected 100 from each source, and asked 32 college undergraduates to study and memorize the selected 100 phrases from either Facebook or books, assigning 16 students to each group. Then they sat the volunteers in front of a computer screen and, one at a time, displayed either a sentence the volunteer had studied or a sentence that was new to the volunteer. The team asked the subjects if they had seen each before, and how sure they were about it.

Facebook posts were one-and-a-half times as memorable as the book sentences, the scientists report this week in Memory & Cognition. The team also ran a memory test of human faces, and the Facebook posts turned out to be more than twice as memorable as those.

Why did people remember more of the Facebook posts? Mickes and her colleagues wondered if the updates reminded the volunteers of people they knew. So they had a new group of subjects repeat the experiment, this time rating how much each entry sounded like someone they knew. But invoking social memories didn't seem to explain the difference on its own.

Perhaps the Facebook posts were easier to remember because they were more like a self-contained, complete thought than random sentences from a book? To find out, the team turned to news headlines, which also form complete thoughts. "What was also cool about headlines is they're written to grab your attention," Mickes says. "So you'd think, for that reason alone, they would be more memorable" than casual remarks on the Internet.

Not so. When the researchers tested CNN news headlines ("Sixth person dies after stage collapse at Indiana State Fair"), against random sentences from news articles ("He was arrested Thursday and was taken before federal investigators for interrogation."), and comments responding to news articles ("No talent hack, I should feed him to the lizards."), they found that readers' comments were more memorable than headlines, which in turn stuck better in subjects' memories than mid-story sentences. Entertainment news was also easier to remember than breaking news, but the comments reigned supreme. So it seemed the gossipy tone and completeness could not fully account for the memorability of Facebook posts and online comments, the team reports.

Mickes suggests that the answer comes down to how unfiltered the remarks are. Effortless chatter is better than well-crafted sentences at tapping into our minds' basic language capacities—because human brains evolved to prioritize and remember unfiltered information from social interaction. "Before typewriters, before the pen, before anything, we've been talking to each other," she says. "So it does seem [memory] goes hand-in-hand with natural language."

The experiments are good, says cognitive psychologist Suparna Rajaram of Stony Brook University in New York, who was not involved in the work. The study shows for the first time that a lack of editing makes remembering text easier, in addition to the personal relevance of the text. "The simpler the writing, the easier it is to take away the message. I think blogs and social media really capitalize on that."

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom argues that it's fair to consider a connection to human evolution. He says the study shows that social media have introduced the fluidity of everyday conversation into written text—where people are famously so open it's often dangerous. "You might argue there's a spice of risk," Dunbar says. "A lot of people have come badly unstuck in their Twitter and Facebook comments."

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